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Bill brief: A-F grading of schools

MIPFS response to House Bill 5112, the proposed A-F grading system for Michigan public schools, 13 November 2013

Madam Chair and members of the Committee,

school busesThank you for giving us this opportunity to share with you parent perspectives on evaluating our schools. While this letter mainly speaks to HB 5112, some later comments are also relevant to HB 5111. Other witnesses have discussed the details of the proposed evaluation system, so we do not address them here, except to point out that what we measure indicates what we value, and everyone--parents and citizens alike--value a much wider range of things about our schools than just test scores in two or three subjects. Test scores can tell us a little, but we really need to know more.

That is really the key to our perspective: any effort to sum up the "quality" of a school in one letter grade or color code does not help parents much at all. In fact, letter grades can be even more misleading because they prompt a "gut" reaction even though we might not be sure what they truly mean or measure. "Grading on a curve," specifying the relative percentage of school to receive each grade makes it worse, with the number of top and bottom grades pre-determined.

Bill brief: Teacher & Administrator evaluation

MIPFS testimony on teacher and administrator evaluation bills

We wholeheartedly support fully developed systems to assess and improve the actual practice of teachers and administrators. It may be difficult to predict the impact a teacher will have on any one student, but we can and should build systems that help all educators grow as professionals and make it clear that we expect educators to be partners in the improvement of our schools. The observation tools and other methods of assessing practice are a critically important first step. Even more important is what happens after the evaluation: how do we provide our educators with the knowledge, tools and resources to improve and fine-tune their practice? The bills only touch on this critical work.

Mandating the creation of this kind of observation system without a firm commitment to provide the necessary resources would turn a promising policy into another, hollow, bureaucratic requirement stealing time and resources from our children.

Bill brief: Third grade reading

HB 5111 — Hold back 3rd graders who don’t test proficient in reading

Introduced by Rep. Price; version H-3 reported from House Edu. Cmte.; analysis as of 12/10/2013


Why this deserves your attention:

Helping all children to read, enjoy reading, and read effectively, is one of the central tasks we expect of our public schools. This bill would focus, however, on stigmatizing students, teachers and schools who do not meet an arbitrary deadline for “proficient” reading. Moreover, that “proficiency” measure is based on scores on a state standardized test which has not yet been selected. A companion bill, HB 5144, would identify, but not fund, intervention programs. The Governor’s FY2015 budget proposal makes some existing funding for “at-risk” students available for reading programs, but includes no new funds for this.

Our story, Part II: Michigan's new "DEW" line

Rather than early warning of a nuclear strike, a package of bills now before the Michigan Senate aim to give early warning of a school district in financial distress - a "deficit early warning" system, if you will. But if our lawmakers truly want an early warning, they should simply ask the parents, teachers and staff of our schools what they have been forced to do by Michigan's persistent failure to invest in public education.

These bills escalate the penalties for districts in financial difficulty - and layer on reporting requirements that seem primarily aimed at placing blame on the locals - while completely failing to acknowledge that districts might be in distress because of the actions of the Legislature. The bill package continues the neat shift of blame: the Legislature and Governor make the decisions about school funding, but the responsibility for cutting programs and opportunities available to our children is left for local school boards to shoulder.

At base, there are two competing stories about what is happening to our schools, and one of them is driving these bills forward.

It's Count Day: know where your school funding is going?

Just a few days ago, a group of Democratic state lawmakers announced that they would introduce legislation to put a hold on the creation of new charter schools until the state developed a better system to oversee their finances. The draft bill, of course, was a reaction to the stunning investigative work by the Detroit Free Press in their June expose on the questionable financial dealings of private, for-profit charter schools in Michigan. (If you haven't read it, you really should.)

Now, as the minority party in both houses of the legislature, there is essentially zero chance that this Democratic bill would be passed as-is. It's an election year, when you tend to see a lot of this kind of thing. But they were also trying to make a point. Part of that point is to say that the people of Michigan want to make sure that public funds which are intended to educate our children are not siphoned off to line some private contractor's pockets.

Departments: 

Thoughts about Ferguson, Mo.

[I drafted the message below for Parents Across America, the national parent advocacy group of which MIPFS is a state affiliate. We thought it would also be appropriate to publish it here, as a reminder of why strong community-governed public schools are so important.]

As we think of the tragic death at police hands of Michael Brown of Ferguson, Mo., our first reaction must be as parents: sorrow and anger. Sorrow because a promising life has been cut so cruelly short, and anger because his death was both unnecessary and sickeningly predictable.

Watching from outside, however, we have also seen in Ferguson problems that plague our nation still.

Departments: 

MIPFS Executive Director receives human rights award

PAA Board of Directors Member honored

Steven Norton, executive director of Parents Across America affiliate Michigan Parents for Schools, and member of the PAA Board of Directors, was the 2014 recipient of the David McMahon Human Rights Award given by the Michigan Education Association. The McMahon award is given annually to recognize "individuals or groups outside the MEA which distinguish themselves by courageously accepting the challenge of moral and ethical leadership in the field of human and civil rights."

Senate weighing school takeover bill

After a bruising vote in the House, the Michigan Senate is slated to take up the latest version of HB 4369, the state school takeover bill. Most people, including us, have been calling this the "EAA bill," but that's a misnomer. The latest version of the bill doesn't even mention the Education Achievement Authority by name, though it would allow the EAA to continue operating and even expand.

What the bill does do, however, is to cement in place a state school takeover system originally rushed into law over four years ago in a desperate attempt to win a share of Federal "race to the top" funding. (We didn't get any.) At the time, everyone agreed that the provisions being rushed into law were less than half-baked, and lawmakers promised to re-visit the provisions and replace them with sound policy. Naturally, that never happened.

But the EAA is still an important part of this story, mainly because of the lessons it - and other examples of state intervention - should have taught us about what happens under state takeover. What are some of those lessons?

Now for another episode of "Lansing Knows Best!"

House Bill 4369 (the "EAA expansion bill") passed the state House of Representatives late last Thursday. After close to two hours of maneuvering and floor speeches, it passed by the thinnest of margins: 56-54. The bill now goes back to the Senate either for its approval or for more changes.

Why is this legislation so important - and so dangerous? This bill is not just about the EAA - in fact, the EAA is not even mentioned by name in the document (though it does allow the EAA to continue and expand). Its impact would be much more sweeping if it becomes law.

This legislation would enshrine state takeover as the best and (nearly) only way to "help" students in struggling schools. On top of that, the bill opens the door for many different organizations to run such schools on behalf of the state - they might be like the EAA (because that has gone so well), or they might be for-profit charter management companies. Both the Governor and the state Superintendent have said they want more "options" for state takeover. That should make us all feel much better.

"One rogue school board member"

This is how a legislator described a close colleague and dear friend of mine: "one rogue school board member." The school board member in question is Elizabeth Welch Lykins, trustee of the East Grand Rapids Public Schools, committed proponent of strong public education, and member of the MIPFS board of directors. Though she was not singled out by name, every person knew who was being described.

"One rogue school board member." The phrase itself is designed to belittle and marginalize. But it fails in that attempt, because it is so disconnected from the truth.

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In the news

MIPFS also contributed considerable background to this article, raising serious questions about the strategy of closing schools.


MIPFS presents to the State Board of Education


Founder of our Forest Hills affiliate testifies before State Board, 9 May 2013


Our op-ed on the EAA's failure and why the Parent Proposal embodied in HB 5268 is a better alternative. MLive.com, 9 Feb 2014


Our op ed on the push to pass an EAA expansion bill by year end, Free Press, 16 December 2013


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